For the Birds Radio Program: Bird Expressions, Part II
Have you ever wondered about the origin of the expression “naked as a jaybird”? (3:55)
(Recording of a Blue Jay)
Yesterday I began a two-part series of hard-nosed investigative reporting about the origins of some expressions using the names of birds in answer to a Duluth listener’s letter. It took quite a bit of research to discover just where some of these terms originated, but I managed to find most of them.
For example, the word “turkey” used as an epithet. Wild turkeys are wary, intelligent birds. But domesticated turkeys and the unrelated Guinea Fowl imported from Turkish territory are apparently a bit lacking in native intelligence, and thus inspired the usage of ‘turkey’ as an epithet. The earliest references to the word used with a negative connotation that I could find were from the 1940’s, in reviews of the theater, where the word turkey referred to plays that had flopped.
Our Common Loon is found throughout northern Europe and Asia, where English-speaking people call it the Great Northern Diver. Their weird calls sound just crazy enough to be genuinely looney, although most of the people who actually hear them on their breeding grounds are Americans and Canadians, since they tend to breed only in remote areas in the Old World. Although the expression “looney” actually comes from “lunar”, because people have long believed that craziness increases with a full moon, the word for the bird comes from the Scandinavian word “lom” for a lame or clumsy person, referring to a loon’s inability to walk on land. Shakespeare’s Macbeth chides a servant, “The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon! Where got’st thou that goose look?” but he seems to be referring to the pale winter plumage of loons, which is after all the plumage most often seen in England. The earliest references that I could find to the use of the word loon to mean someone insane are American. In 1845 Caroline Kirkland, in Western Clearings, wrote, “‘Why, you’re both crazy as loons!’ was Mr. Ashburn’s polite exclamation.” And in 1877, Thomas Bailey Aldrich wrote in the Queen of Sheba, “The fellow is mad!…as mad as a loon.”
Jaywalking comes from the slang term “jay,” which comes directly from our good old common Blue Jay and means an ignorant, unsophisticated person, with the connotation of being from the country—a naive rustic. The assumption apparently was that people of sophistication and refinement—that is, city people—knew to cross streets at corners, but visitors from rural areas could be expected to cross foolishly wherever they happened to be. But “naked as a jaybird”? I searched every reference I could find, from the Oxford English Dictionary through several dictionaries of slang and Americanisms, but nowhere could I find any reference to that common expression. Bartlett’s has Joel Chandler Harris’ phrase “Jaybird don’t rob his own nes’,” but I couldn’t find any citation for the original source of “naked as a jaybird.” No birds wear clothes, and so logically the expression could have just as easily been “naked as a duck” or “naked as a chickadee.” But my suspicion is that the Blue Jay’s lusty and brash lifestyle, along with its shameless pride in its natural apparel, were the elements that made it the number one literary naked bird. If any alert and erudite listener happens to know who first coined this colorful expression, I’d sure appreciate hearing from you.
(Recording of a Blue Jay)
This is Laura Erickson and this program has been “For the Birds.”